US to sell $1.2bn in spy drones to S. Korea
The US Department of Defense wants to sell four of the Block 30 version of the RQ-4 Global Hawk aircraft to Seoul under the Foreign Military Sales program. It formally notified Congress of the proposed deal, which is estimated to worth $1.2 billion, reports the Pentagon-affiliated Defense Security Cooperation Agency.
The deal would include “associated equipment, parts, training and logistical support”. The military says it would go in line with the transition of intelligence gathering mission from the US-led Combined Forces Command to South Korea’s own troops in 2015. South Korea hosts almost 30,000 American troops, which take on many tasks requiring use of advanced technology.
The RQ-4 Global Hawk is Northrop Grumman’s unmanned reconnaissance aircraft currently operated by the US and Germany. It fills in the same role as Cold War era Lockheed U-2 all-weather intelligence gathering.
Congress may block the deal, but diplomatic sources told the Korean news agency Yonhap that American lawmakers are likely not to oppose the sale.
Previously the US was apparently reluctant to provide Seoul with the advanced spying capabilities of the Global Hawk, the agency says. The drones can survey landscape with its radar and optical sensors through clouds while flying up to 20km high.
The Block 30 model however may not be the best value for the Korean money. The US Air Force announced in January that it wanted to retire its fleet in 2013 and instead buy more advanced Block 40s.
The military said that Block 30 version was more costly to operate that the manned U-2 spy plane, while inferior in terms of sensor capabilities. Retiring the drones would save $2.5 billion over five years, the Pentagon said, which would come in handy in the times of budgetary restraints.
The notion however was blocked by the legislators. Under the final version of this year’s defense authorization bill Block 30 models will remain in operation until at least 2014.
Political analyst Nile Bowie says the pending deal between Washington and Seoul could escalate the conflict with neighboring North Korea – which fiercely guards its territory.
“We have to remember that North Korea has warned many times about its territorial integrity. If South Korean drones penetrate North Korean airspace it could potentially start a huge conflict,” he told RT.